Rising Student Debt and the 2020 Election

Source: James Kvaal, Jessica Thompson, University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy, February 2020

From the introduction:

In the 2020 presidential election campaign, college affordability has become a central household economic issue that nearly every candidate feels compelled to address.

Students and their families understand that an education beyond high school—whether a job training certificate, a community college degree, a four-year university diploma, or a graduate degree—is more critical to their future than ever. Employers know that educated workers are key to productivity. Most policymakers understand that increased educational attainment is essential to continued economic growth and shared prosperity.

However, despite college’s growing importance, there has been a widening gulf over the last several decades between college costs and students’ ability to pay them, and as a result American families have faced a rising tide of student debt. State funding for public colleges and universities has steadily declined, contributing to higher tuitions for most students. Federal student debt outstanding now totals $1.5 trillion, up from $577 billion in 2008.1 While education loans help many earn college degrees, many others are left worse off for having attended college. More than a million former students default on their loans each year.

From eliminating college tuition to canceling student debt, many of the men and women who seek to lead the country have proposed ambitious investments in college affordability. If enacted, these proposals would represent an unprecedented federal commitment to college. Nearly all of the candidates propose hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars in new spending. This perspectives brief explores the challenge of college affordability and summarizes the campaign proposals to address it.